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Trip Report Aboard the Amazon Star

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We are now at the Casa Morey in Iquitos, Peru. It's Thursday and we've been on the road since Monday June 12. LATAM airlines did a magnificent job of getting us to Lima in relative comfort. New plane, more room in economy than expected, nice service, good movies and wonderful wheel chair service as needed.

Food wasn't great, but what else is new.

After a quick and calm trip through the airport, no customs, we walked across the way to the Wyndham Hotel. By this time it was one a.m. their time but check-in was immediate (had been told it could be a long wait) and within a few minutes we were in our comfortable third floor back-of-the-building room. Dead quiet. Beds comfy, new down pillow case promising. A voucher for a free pisco sour went unused because: one a.m.

A seven a.m. wake up call was far too soon, and I was very tired and very achy. But a nice hot bath restored me some and the job was completed by the most wonderful coffee and fresh buns with butter and some kind of tropical fruit marmalade. There were all manner of cooked items too and a chef making omelettes, but I have to be awake for hours before there is any appeal in that stuff. Fruit salad was good though.

***


Flight to Iquitos was spectacular, first over the fog shrouded ocean as we ascended, then over a coastal range with high snow covered peaks (Andes?) on the horizon. The mountains below had mist in all the folds and valleys, and over the occasional circular lake. Then a brown meandering river snaked below with its meandering tributaries; then impenetrable jungle for a few hundred miles. About an hour later we flew into the city and over some very impoverished dwellings.

We were picked up by a hotel representative and taken through town in a taxi. My god, we have never seen anything like it. There are over 500,000 citizens here and every one of them was on the unmarked road on their motorcycle "taxis". Or on their mopeds. And the side streets were all the same.

The Casa Morey is the mansion of a long ago rubber baron, and the rooms are large suites with 20" foot ceilings. While most guests give its shabby glories five stars for charm and character, recently five (we can only presume very young) guests of the hotel claimed they "hated" the place and left its "haunted house" vibe for modern quarters after only one night.

Too bad for them, as the Casa is rated #1 in Iquitos. The furniture is old and the (many) chandeliers are incongruously topped by eco bulbs. But the beds are comfy, staff is obliging, and breakfast included.

Others meals have been taken at the river-front Dawn on the Amazon cafe, a hippyish and expat hangout with very good safe food and drink. Yesterday we sat next to a young couple, he from Pittsburgh and she from Canada, and their two year old son. Just returning from a four month trip to visit friends and relatives in both countries, they had chartered a boat to return them to their home in the jungle. They built a compound on land owned by her dad and have lived on it for the past few years. Son is now in exploratory mode and had terrified mom when discovered clutching a tarantula.

Friday now and today we took an amazing tour with a local named Joel. We went by moto taxi, essentially a motor tricycle with a passenger cab built across the back. First stop: the Belen district where I struggled down a long flight of steps to the filthy disgusting waterfront. Joel and Himself manhandled me successfully across some rotting boards and into a very old dirty wooden craft with an outboard motor. We then took a tour of a floating town, though some houses don't float as the river rises in the wet season and the ground floor becomes flooded, forcing the family to spend the next four months on the second floor.

You hear of people born into circumstances like these, but to see them is humbling. I guess it's humbling though in fact I have no idea what it is. Chastening? Astounded? Pitying? Admiring of their fortitude? Perhaps all that and more. There are of course no sewers, yet women wash clothes and dishes in the foul looking water, children swim in it, fish are caught and eaten from it. Their immune systems must be cast iron. Or their lives very short. No roads of course, but recently the government was able to pipe in stanchions of fresh drinking water here and there and also electricity, so, from the water between the shacks rise "street" lights to illuminate the night.

(Later: the cruise director told me that recent studies have shown that the current through the town is so swift that conditions are not so unsanitary as it seems. Whew).

There are shops, of course: bodegas, mechanics, gas station, church, school, even a woman in a canoe delivering food she'd cooked to anyone in the mood for take-out.

Earlier we had passed a hospital Joel said was provided by the government for those too poor to buy health care. I had to wonder yet again what was preventing the good ol' US of A of having such humanity as is being displayed by a country so much less well off.

Next stop was an outdoor food market that was a carnival of colorful fruits and vegetables and bizarre proteins like BBQ'd grubs en brochettes, whole cayman, smoked haunch of paca, complete with tiny legs and feet.


Finally we were dropped off at the Dawn and I had a well deserved bottle of water and a very large rum and coke. Then back to the hotel for a long hot shower and a fresh change of clothes. Once again, loud hosannas for our great good fortune. Himself said it was the best day of his life.

***


We woke up this morning on the Amazon, having travelled all night from Iquitos. Yesterday was spent packing up and being taken to meet the rest of the group who had just flown in. We saw the museum of indigenous peoples, an animal rescue center, and then all returned to the Casa Morey for refreshments before making our way to the dock and boarding the Amazon Star.

It's a lovely small ship with sixteen passengers and a lot of crew; accommodations are comfy and well thought out, though I wasn't able to sleep very well and woke tired and grumpy.
We had a wonderful cocktail party upstairs on the sun deck with excellent pisco sours, and then a very good dinner and an early night.

Getting in and out of the skiffs this morning wasn't a problem, which had been my fear, because strong men were on hand. We spent a couple of hours exploring a good sized tributary and saw lots of birds, a sloth, and monkeys. It was interesting, but after some good sleep I'll no doubt be more enthusiastic.

Later: we took a nap after lunch and that paved the way for a very good afternoon. Some great sightings: monkeys, baby marmoset, another sloth, extraordinary birds including a gigantic jabiru stork in red, white and black, another very colorful small stork, kingfishers, and a really lovely paradise tanager. The guides are very knowledgeable and passionate about their subject, the river and scenery lovely and we saw dolphins frolicking in the wake of the boat.

During the cocktail hour five crew members entertained us to a concert of Peruvian music - The Chunky Monkeys were great. I've always been a fool for flute music of the Andes.

Off to bed right after dinner because tomorrow is an up'n atem day beginning at 6a.m.

***

Started to forget what day it is. Monday?

We were instructed to muster on the upper deck at 6a.m to observe macaws after they had returned from evening doings and before they roosted for the day. Coffee was served and it was cool and pleasant. I could make out macaw shapes and hear their squawks, but they were all grey in the grey morning. Disappointing.

We then repaired to a small tributary and spent a lovely time tooling up it. Blue Morpho!! Kingfishers! Toucans! Lots else too- large tree rat, more beautiful cream woodpeckers, a wonderful owl-like bird that eats moths with its letterbox mouth, a great potoo.

But must try to avoid a list making woman who wants to write down everything with correct spelling. Sadly I'm not really a person who plays well with others. Thankfully a man asked for the engine to be shut off and that we float in silence for a while to hear the sounds of the jungle and all the calls of the birds. I could have kissed him. It was bliss.

A village visit was scheduled but after seeing the mud steps carved out of the bank and disbelieving that it was only 200 yards away, as claimed by the fearless leader, I stayed back for a couple hours rest. Himself returned to tell me that it would have put me out of commission for several days. But he did see a little girl clutching the Spanish version of The Very Hungry Caterpillar, one of several book gifts I'd sent along for the kids.

So, lots of resting before and after lunch, then out on the skiffs again for late afternoon and early evening. Highlight: Hoatzins! Two pairs! Nesting! Technically impossible at this time of year! We stayed for ages really close to a great view of the first pair, the female solid as a rock on a very neatly made large nest of black branches. It looked lovely, like
something you'd be proud to take to the farmers' market.

They are the oddest looking birds, clearly a direct link to some dinosaur ancestor, and the solitary member of their species.

Serenaded once again by the Chunky Monkeys during the most welcome cocktail hour, I ate a light dinner, showered and fell into bed.

***

Out at 7:30 this morning after breakfast for a long exploration far up a tributary. It was a cornucopia of birds, some monkeys and a long snake high in a tree. We saw a couple of roseate spoonbills, a bird I never expected to see in real life and they were something else, like God had a couple of drinks and got to work a little tipsy.. Probably threw in hoatzins and giraffes that evening too. (Nature guide told me that they only see roseate spoonbills a few times a year, and that was the first sighting this year.)

Another fabulous experience was following many hundreds of egrets who left their roosts at the sound of the skiff and flew very fast ahead of us up the river. It was like being in a nature film. Unforgettable.

***

Confined to quarters this morning. Been fighting off a cold which I first noticed when we were staying at the Casa Morey; I might have picked it up on the plane. I've been coughing more and more but the kibosh was delivered last night as we were caught in a tropical storm. One minute we were admiring a pair of golden tarantulas in their nest in a tree - pitch dark, by flashlight- when rain fell by buckets full and kept falling as we made our speedy, soggy, soaked to the skin journey back to the mother ship. That did not improve my health, especially since I'm already over-tired, and I had a miserable night running a temperature and feeling like death. Even before the hard night, I already knew not to budge today for another marathon morning on the river. I'm lying in bed in the cabin looking out at the jungle, with its tightly packed variety of trees and shrubs in varying shades of green, highlighted by exotic blooms in oranges and yellows and reds on the river bank, whilst above dangle from silver branches the ovoid orange eggs of the kapok tree and little green and white parrots snuggle on a branch... A scene from Rousseau.

It's cooler today because a weather front from Patagonia approaches.

After an afternoon cooking demo, and a beginning made of a list of all the species we've seen, it's off for a peaceful twilight tour of one of the gorgeous riverine tributaries that abound. It was a cool refreshing evening and as we swung round bend after bend, birds disturbed by our approach as they prepared to roost, scattered around giving us excellent close up views of them.

There's a gap here, due to increasing tiredness and bad cold, but I enjoyed the last couple of days in spite of it.

We visited a couple of villages I was able to get to, with their beautiful children, handmade goods for sale, and young pregnant brides. While the younger guests were kayaking, we took another skiff ride, the highlight being a large cayman lizard. Started to recognize trees, flowering vines, some common birds, and to know what to look for

On the evening before our departure, we all piled into the skiffs for the last time and motored ahead of the ship to the center of the Amazon. Champagne was popped as the sun set, and the Amazon Star sailed majestically by. We all cheered and toasted the trip of a lifetime. It was sad to leave.

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